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My War with Charlie Wilson

And Bill Casey's victory.

9:43 AM, Dec 28, 2007 • By GARY SCHMITT
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Thinking it mattered, and wanting to give my bosses the best advice I could, I then asked both the Pentagon and CIA what they thought about Wilson's effort to supply the Afghans with 22-mm Oerlikon cannons. Both were adamant that it was one of the dumbest ideas they had ever heard of. The Oerlikon was portable, but definitely not mobile. It would take teams of mules and horses to move the gun, and even larger teams to move the ammo to keep the gun supplied. Once in place, it wasn't going anywhere, and it would be a target as much as a weapon once actually used. And to top things off, each round for the weapon would cost somewhere on the order of $50, with the Oerlikon eating through each 60-round magazine in just a few seconds.

Virtually everyone agreed that the Oerlikons would be a waste of money and resources. And if there was going to be a solution to the Hinds, this was not it. The Oerlikons were so obviously impractical that it didn't take long before Wilson's own sketchy history was combined with his push to buy the weapon into pretty loud whispers that there were kickbacks involved. Or, as the then deputy director of CIA John McMahon later more politely said: "We use to make comments like, it must be Charlie's uncle who owns Oerlikon."

I passed this all along to Sen. Moynihan, who instructed me to stall Wilson's efforts. So, for the next while, I "missed" Wilson's calls or "returned" them when I knew he had probably left for the day. But Wilson was persistent and, sure enough, he started making his way over to the Senate side to track me down in person. For a few days, I avoided him and even found myself asking my secretary to see whether the hallways were clear before heading out to lunch. When he finally got hold of me--literally--the 6'4" Wilson was adamant that I get Moynihan's ok for the reprogramming. Angered by Wilson's attempt to intimidate me, I told him that, if my boss were to listen to me, he wouldn't give the ok. After a few rhetorical rounds of "who was I?" and "who was the congressman here?" Wilson then went into his more soothing East Texas routine and said he would take this matter up with the senator directly.


It was then Moynihan's turn to scan the hallways, which he quite ably did for a few days. But then Wilson struck. He waited until the senator was in an important finance committee hearing, came in through the back door directly behind the senator and the committee members' dais, and publicly accosted the senator from the back. Sitting in my office, I got a panicked call from one of the senator's other aides telling me that Moynihan had said for me to do whatever I had to do to get this "mad man" away from him, including having him ok the reprogramming.

My next step was to turn to Sen. Nunn, who had only recently taken over for Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson as the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee after Jackson's unexpected death in 1983. But Nunn, of course, was no stranger to Washington's ways and was quite capable of standing pretty firm if he thought it worthwhile. When I briefed Nunn on what was up, his response was simple but smart. He'd only approve the reprogramming if the Agency said it really wanted the Oerlikons.


Perfect, I thought. I then called Langley asked them to send a team from the Afghan program down to meet with Sen. Nunn to brief him on the Agency's position. In a day or so, we all met in the senator's office. And sure enough, the CIA caved. Officers who had been constantly calling me over the past month to tell me what a ludicrous idea the Oerlikons were and that Afghan rebels were going to lose their lives carting and protecting these weapons, were now benignly telling Sen. Nunn that the Agency had "no objections" to the reprogramming. Sen. Nunn turned to me, shrugged his shoulders and gave me the old "welcome to Washington" look.


The assumption was that Wilson had gotten to Bill Casey, Reagan's director of central intelligence. And, no doubt, from Casey's point of view, wasting a few tens of millions on the Oerlikons was worth it if it kept this powerful democrat on the side of the angels, especially given all the problems the administration was having getting similar support for its programs in Central America at the time. Plus, in the end, it didn't matter much once the decision to ship Stingers to the Afghan rebels was made a year or so later.

So the mujahedin got the Oerlikons. But, as predicted, once they had moved them to a spot, that is where they stayed; and also as predicted, they were of marginal use in the war against the Hinds, at best. But if buying them kept "Good Time" Charlie Wilson happy, that was good enough for Bill Casey--and Casey was probably right.

Gary Schmitt is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and former minority staff director of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.